Just six months ago, I explained why you won't get medical drama House, M.D. via Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) streaming anytime soon. Well, I was wrong. It's April 1 today, but this is no joke: House, M.D. just showed up on Netflix streams in America -- all eight seasons and 177 episodes.
That's great for fans of high-quality television -- House won five Emmys and two Golden Globes -- with a touch of Sherlock Holmes' mystery-solving, but what does this mean for Netflix investors?
Sure, House used to air on the Fox network, part of the 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) media empire. Fox even assisted with the show's production, and provided a Hollywood backlot where most of the series was shot.
But the show wasn't an in-house Fox project. It was officially co-produced by three big-name Hollywood producers -- and NBC Universal, now owned by Comcast. Fox gets credit for production assistance and for television distribution in North America, but the Comcast subsidiary called the shots and funded the production.
And most importantly, Comcast's NBC Universal collects at least part of the license payments from Netflix. So it is entirely possible that Comcast put House on the table to convince Netflix to sign a lucrative direct data networking pact. "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," you know?
Did I misread the tea leaves?
Then again, Netflix appears to have been planning a House introduction for some time. Back in January, users of the popular Reddit forum reported catching some House action on Netflix in America two months ago. It was but a fleeting glimpse, probably a temporary Netflix test, and stopped working in short order.
But these things don't go unnoticed on the Web these days. And that brief glimpse happened before the Comcast agreement. Just a couple of weeks in advance, so it's not entirely crazy to think that the Reddit-reported event might have been part of the Comcast negotiations.
Moreover, Netflix has actually been streaming House since last September -- but only in Latin America.
It's unclear who owns the distribution rights down in Mexico and beyond. Could be Universal or Fox, and the producers may even have sold off the Latin American distribution rights to local networks. That's how it works in Europe, with different networks handling House distribution in various nations.
Either way, Netflix has clearly been thinking about the House asset for some time, eager to strike deals.
Follow the money!
And that brings us right back to the beginning. When I said that House wasn't coming to Netflix in America anytime soon, I based that analysis on the dollar signs flashing in Universal's eyes.
The show is available in many nonsubscription services, including Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iTunes store. But Season 4 was unavailable from iTunes for about a year, spanning 2007 and 2008. Universal was asking Apple to charge $5 per episode, which was unheard of at the time. The producers saw the big money streaming in from direct distribution and syndication deals, and wanted nothing less than a big payday from Apple, too.
The matter was resolved, and you can buy House episodes from Season 4 for $3 apiece today. But I was convinced that Netflix wouldn't overpay for the show, thus delaying the introduction until the value of the acerbic doctor had diminished.
The bottom line for Netflix
The bottom line is either NBC Universal stepped down its asking price or Netflix bit the bullet and overpaid. Which one is it?
House has been off the air since 2012. It's currently airing reruns on several cable stations, including the USA Network, Oxygen, and local networks. But that's not a big money-maker for NBC, because the studio owns and operates both Oxygen and USA.
Syndication licenses from a patchwork of local stations is not a super-lucrative gold mine, and the lack of third-party nationwide license sales may point to NBC having trouble selling the show. Maybe House's multi-episode plotlines don't appeal to syndication partners, much like E.R.
On the Netflix side of the deal, the company is holding more cards than it used to. With more than 30 million American subscribers under its belt, the streaming service is about as large as Comcast's own cable footprint. If Netflix hits its subscriber guidance in its late-April first-quarter report, the service will be larger than the leading cable provider.
So striking a deal with Netflix is an easy way to reach a very large audience. It's the easiest way out if you want a national reach, don't want to meddle with a plethora of local stations and their limited budgets, and can't strike the right terms with any of the traditional nationwide networks.
Put it all together and I'm thinking that Netflix walked away with its wallet largely intact. Netflix shares jumped 1.6% in this morning's trading session, so I can't be the only investor to see a good deal behind the scenes here. I'm hoping to hear more about this eyeball magnet deal in that first-quarter report. For now, I'm just a happy consumer and a hopeful Netflix investor.